Political Players in Colombia
Juan Manuel Santos: The candidate of the center-right Partido de la U romped to victory in a run-off presidential contest held in June 2010, easily defeating his Green rival on the strength of a pledge to build upon the security and economic advances achieved by his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Santos entered office with the backing of a large majority in the Congress, but the reliability of his allies is a subject of some doubt, particularly as many of them remain loyal to Uribe, who has reacted with hostility to Santos’ rapprochement with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and what Uribe perceives to be a dangerous shift in focus away from national security. The president’s economic program is based on the somewhat contradictory goals of exploiting Colombia’s mineral and oil wealth while also creating a foundation for sustainable development. Thus far he has managed to strike a balance between those two objectives, and foreign investment is flowing in at a record pace. However, his recent decision to restart peace talks with leftist guerrillas is a gamble that holds the promise of a big political payoff if successful, but failure could jeopardize Santos’ ability to govern effectively over the remainder of his term and threaten his chances of re-election in 2014.
Social National Unity Party: A conservative party that favors liberal economic policies, Partido de la U was the core of Uribe’s legislative coalition during his second term and led the failed effort to clear the way for Uribe to pursue a third term in 2010. Once the courts ruled out a third-term bid, Uribe threw his support behind Santos, who had declared his preparedness to stand for the presidency if Uribe could not do so. Partido de la U emerged as the largest party in the Congress at the 2010 legislative elections, but the party is vulnerable to factional rifts and Santos will in any case need the cooperation of other parties to claim a congressional majority.
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia: Uribe’s hard-line approach to dealing with the leftist guerrillas produced a measurable improvement in domestic security conditions, and FARC has clearly been staggered by a series of setbacks since the beginning of 2008, including the deaths of top leaders and the surrender of large numbers of combatants. FARC’s weakened position is highlighted by its willingness to resume peace talks without a cease-fire agreement in place, and it is possible that the guerrillas will launch a stepped-up campaign of violence with the aim of improving its bargaining leverage. In any case, the success of the talks is far from assured, and until an agreement is operational, guerrilla violence will continue to pose security risks for foreign businesses and personnel in targeted areas.
Alvaro Uribe: Although his bid for a third term was stalled by the courts, Uribe still enjoyed immense popularity when he left office in 2010, and he will continued to wield influence among the center-right political forces on which Santos depends to secure approval of his government’s program. Uribe can either be a very useful friend or a very dangerous enemy for the new administration, and his actions to date suggest that he prefers to play the latter role. Uribe is constitutionally barred from standing again for the presidency, and so cannot directly challenge Santos in 2014. However, it is probable that he will back another candidate, a development that could threaten the unity of the president’s legislative coalition.
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